March 14 2019 08:04 AM

Area churches cope with Methodist split over gay marriage

    Pastor Mark Thompson of Central United Methodist Church, in downtown Lansing, was the first openly gay pastor appointed in Michigan. Friday, the Williamston Congregation sent him flowers in the wake of anti-gay church rules adopted two weeks ago.


    March winds knocked on the doors of Williamston United Methodist Church Sunday as Pastor Linda Stephan told her congregation she was giving up “a number of things” for Lent.


    She warmed them up with small stuff, like using less plastic. She talked about “being more mindful of those around me.”


    She pushed her gentle, bell-like voice to ring out louder. Two weeks ago, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church doubled down on its rules against same-sex marriage and gay clergy.


    “I’m giving up provisions in the general denominational rules that harm some of our most vulnerable church members and friends,” she declared, almost shouting the word “harm.”


    Her voice softened again. “It will take me a while to figure out what all that means. I trust you’ll do it with me. Will you do it with me?” A warm breeze of “yesses” floated from the congregation of 150 or so.


    The United Methodist Church is closer to disunion than it has ever been. Lansing area churches are bracing for separation.


    Hail Mary pass


    At the General Conference in St. Louis Feb. 26, a delegation of about 800 clergy and lay people defeated a plan that would have allowed each United Methodist congregation to decide on its own whether to perform same-sex unions and allow openly gay clergy who are married or in relationships to serve.


    The conference not only affirmed the ban on gay marriage, it also stiffened the penalties for ministers who perform them: a year of unpaid leave for the first offense, defrocking for the second.


    The letter board sign outside Williamston United Methodist Church usually announces upcoming events or the theme of the next sermon. Last week, the message was brief: “Our hearts are broken, our open doors are still open.”


    After Sunday’s service, Stephan called the defeated One Church Plan a “Hail Mary pass” that fell short.


    “We cannot abide, in the long term, by the rules now set forth by the General Conference,” Stephan said.


    Pastor Linda Stephan of Williamston United Methodist Church told her congregation Sunday that for Lent, she’s giving up anti-gay church rules “that harm some of our most vulnerable members.”


    After services Sunday, church members milled around over coffee and cookies. A workshop on helping local refugees was about to begin, but the recent conference was on everyone’s mind. Two longtime members, Sondra Dunn and Nancy Ham, stopped to hug and chat. (There was a lot of hugging Sunday.)


    “What happened in St. Louis was a devastating blow,” Dunn said. “We have a lot of anger at the denomination right now, and it’s hard to stay a Methodist.”


    What the global church is going through now, Ham said, is similar to what happened in Williamston in 1992. About a third of the congregation left Williamston United in protest when it became the first Methodist church in Michigan to join Reconciliation Ministries, a gay-friendly church network.


    “It’s pretty much our identity in this church, being tolerant and open to all people,” member Mark Adams said. “We believe that’s what the scriptures require.”


    In the two weeks since the St. Louis conference, Ham said, over 1,000 people have flocked to Reconciliation Ministries.


    “It lays the groundwork for a separate church,” Ham said.


    Pushback against the conference results is well underway. Before services Sunday, Stephan asked the congregation if they were ready for some good news.


    “Yes,” came the reply.


    “Are you tired of bad news?” “Yes!” She announced that an ‘out worship service’ will be held at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Lansing Saturday at 10 a.m.


    “Reconciling and affirming Methodists from across the state will be there,” Stephan said.


    She told the group that in the coming weeks, full-page ads will begin to appear in newspapers across Michigan with “very strong statements” from Methodist clergy supporting LGBTQ rights. So far, over 150 Michigan clergy have signed on to the statement.


    “And,” she added, “we sent flowers to Pastor Mark.”


    Pastor Mark Thompson of Lansing’s Central United Methodist Church, across from the State Capitol downtown, grinned at the crimson bromeliad blossom delivered to his office Friday.


    “If I know Linda, there’s some symbolism there,” Thompson said.


    Awakened giant


    Mark Thompson was the first openly gay Methodist pastor appointed in Michigan. The Methodist Book of Discipline allows the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, so long as they are not in a relationship and remain celibate.


    Two weeks ago, Thompson drove to the St. Louis conference, proudly wearing his rainbow stole, to see history made. He left early, in a numb shock, when it became clear the traditional plan would prevail.


    The spear-like leaves that encircle the flaming red bloom in the center of a bromeliad symbolize protection.


    At 61, Thompson is nearing retirement and jokes that he’ll go on his first date the day after he hangs up his frock.


    Dark humor is one of Thompson’s coping strategies. He once told Nancy Ham of the Williamston UMC that it’s easy to be a gay Methodist pastor — it’s just hard to be happy.


    “I’m looking forward to falling in love with a man and being able to be married to him some day,” Thompson said. “If you equate that wish I have with what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, then you’re not only off base, you’re inhuman. I can get very angry about that but I choose not to.”


    Thompson said he’s willing to perform same-gender marriages, despite the church ban. Nobody has asked him yet, knowing the consequences would be severe.


    A gay marriage in a Methodist church could be reported to the bishop, potentially leading to loss of livelihood for the minister who performed it.


    To Williamston’s Pastor Stephan, that is simply unacceptable, not so much for the clergy’s sake, as the congregation’s.


    “People shouldn’t have to decide whether they’re going to get married as some form of protest,” she said. “They should just have a normal, happy marriage that everyone is celebrating in their church. That breaks my heart the most right now.”


    “I’m willing to be patient — to a point,” Thompson said. “I see a new thing coming. I don’t know what it is. It might be a change of heart or a schism, but things are not going to stay the way they are.”


    He compared the church’s present divide to a schism that divided the Methodist church in 1844, when the national debate over slavery was reaching a peak.


    When the General Conference censured a bishop who came into possession of slaves by marriage, the conference split into two. In 1939, the sects joined back together.


    “It took a very long time and there were a lot of hurtful words,” he said. “So schism is not always bad.”


    The Sunday after the St. Louis conference, Thompson attended a church service in Royal Oak UMC packed with 450 people and 54 clergy, “all of like mind.”


    “If we’d had that gathering a year ago, we’d have gotten maybe 50 people,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Enough, already.’ A giant has been awakened.”


    Something new


    Pastor Jon Pohl of Asbury United Methodist Church is proud his congregation joined Reconciliation Ministries, a gay-friendly network of churches, a year ago.


    On the north side of Lansing, Pastor Jon Pohl of Asbury United Methodist Church on Lake Lansing Road took advantage of his church’s proximity to the Biggby’s next door to decompress over a large coffee. Pohl has been pastor since July 2017, after six years at a country church south of Ludington.


    “The decision made in St. Louis was so counter to who we are,” he lamented.


    An avid outdoorsman, Pohl has a lifetime goal of hiking the entire 4,600- mile North Country Trail.


    “I started at the Ohio border, going north, and will probably do another hunk this spring,” he said.


    The trail ahead of his church is not as well marked.


    “This decision has forced a lot of us to make a stand,” Pohl said. “Those of us who might have been on the sidelines or on the fence before, we’re in the game now, standing up for inclusion. People have found their voice about what they feel is right.”


    Asbury UMC joined the gay-friendly Reconciliation Ministries about a year ago. About half the congregation’s 120 members turned out to vote. Only one vote member voted against it.


    “We saw this conference was coming, and we wanted to make a stand about who we were,” Pohl said.


    Most Michigan churches are opposed to the anti-gay conference rules. Michigan Area Bishop David Bard said he foresees two possible outcomes.


    In one scenario, some churches accept gay marriages and gay clergy and others do not, but they respect each others’ choices and stay within the same tent — the One Church option.


    But that plan was voted down at the St. Louis conference. Many church leaders think there is little reason to expect a different outcome at the church’s next general conference a year from now.


    Most U.S. delegates voted for the One Church plan, but a growing bloc of delegates from traditionalists in Africa, along with Indonesia, Russia and other countries, joined U.S. traditionalists to tip the vote the other way.


    For now, about 7 million of the world’s 13 million Methodists are in the United States, but that could change in a few years, as the church grows overseas and shrinks in the United States.


    “Conversations about human sexuality are very different in the global south than they are in the United States,” Bard said. “And we have churches that are doing quite well in some of those parts of the world.”


    Bard described the other possible outcome as “some kind of division.”


    “We’re not sure just what the next phase of life together in the United Methodist Church might be,” Bard said.


    “There will be some honest conversations about — can the church stay together?” A March 1 blog posted by Reconciliation Ministries hinted that “the Holy Spirit is already creating something new from the ashes.”


    Dissenting churches could form a new denomination or simply become independent, one by one.


    “My hope is that, if there is some kind of division, we can work on something that has some orderliness to it,” Bard said.


    Flat-out embarrassed


    To the east of Lansing, at University United Methodist Church, Pastor William Bills wasn’t grieving over the conference results.


    “This stuff ’s been going on since Martin Luther,” he said.


    A no-nonsense former Navy chaplain, Bills looked like he has his duffel bag packed for whatever comes next. He wore a black “Sermonator” T-shirt, a gift from his son.


    “We have liturgy in our Book of Worship for blessing animals, blessing houses,” he said. “Sometimes I ride out to Baldwin and get my motorcycle blessed. You can bless a motorcycle or a puppy dog, but not a gay couple? That’s a bunch of crap.”


    Under the bluff exterior, he suffers for his flock, and for Pastor Thompson.


    “Mark is an effective pastor and has been for 32 frickin’ years,” Bills said. “Don’t give me this B.S. about gay people can’t be clergy.”


    He brushed off calls for church unity as another “bunch of crap.”


    “What we have is enforced unity,” he said.


    Bills was referring not just to the conference result, but to the United Methodist Church’s “trust clause” — an ancient provision that dates back to the days of church founder John Wesley. It states that all the UMC churches, properties and assets are held by the congregations in trust for the denomination.


    “My congregation could leave the denomination tomorrow,” Bills said. “We’d just have to vacate the building and sign off on all the bank accounts.”


    Chalk up Bills’ equanimity to his background. He didn’t grow up in the Christian church. (He tells people he grew up a “heathen.”) He was a hell-raiser in high school and turned to the church while serving in the military.


    “People who have been brought up, taught and trained in this institution — it means a lot to them,” he said. “I just don’t have that institutional loyalty to preserve this thing at all costs.”


    The Methodist Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court will rule late next month on the constitutionality of the traditional plan. But even if the plan is ruled unconstitutional, Bills said, “that just gets us back to Square One.”



    Pastor William Bills of University United Methodist Church is ready to shepherd his church through a possible split.


    “Clearly, we don’t have the votes,” Bills said. “So do we do it again next year?” Even with the trust clause in its back pocket, the United Methodist Church would be hard-pressed to deal with a mass exodus of, say, half the nation’s United Methodist congregations — about 15,000 churches — and the financial chaos and blizzard of lawsuits that could follow.


    “I don’t believe that the United Methodist Church, under the traditional plan, could start a new congregation in East Lansing,” Bills said. “It ain’t gonna happen.” University United adopted a gay-friendly “hospitality statement” a year before Bills arrived in 2016.


    The way Bills sees it, if the new anti-gay rules stick and his congregation votes to split from the church, University United will either “negotiate its way out” or “walk down the road to start a new church.”


    “We’ll deal with these things as we go forward,” he said. “Hand-wringing or staying awake at night isn’t going to help.”


    He thought about retiring this month to get away from the mess, but he thought better of it and now plans to stick around to shepherd his flock through whatever comes next. In the unlikely event his largely progressive congregation votes to stick with the United Methodist Church under the traditional plan, he’ll be out the door for sure. In fact, when the dust settles on the church’s next phase, he may retire anyway, whatever the outcome.


    “I’ve been preaching and teaching and praying and marrying and burying people for 30 years,” Bills said. “It might be time to do something different. Right now, I’m just flat-out embarrassed to be a member of the Methodist Church.”